Nine Degrees of Separation: How Easily Your Personal Info Can Be Found Online

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Worried about your online privacy, and the simplicity with which your life can be uncovered from one stray thread of social media? If not, maybe you should be. British journalist Joanna Geary—a web development editor at the London Times—demonstrated just how easy it is to track down information about strangers online during a presentation at the British Young Journalist Academy, and scared herself in the process.

Beginning with one Twitter update picked at random from a search of four keywords, Geary was able to find that Twitter user’s entire family on Facebook in nine steps, using a combination of public services including Google, LinkedIn and Facebook (She explains the steps for those wishing to take up their own stalking practices right here).

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She writes:

“It frightens me how simple it was to get all that I did… I’ve gone from one tweet to knowing an entire family’s names, location, address, contact details, what they look like, how they are connected to the military and, potentially, where a part of the US army is coming under fire. I stop there because I am already completely freaked out by just how far I’ve already got from a few Google searches.”

As for online privacy, Geary says the onus is currently on the individual, but she feels that may be unfair: “It’s hard to see how we can always stop this type of jigsaw identification of people online. Sometimes people are mentioned online without them even knowing. Certainly having stricter default Facebook privacy settings would help, but it’s not the only answer,” she writes. After seeing how quickly a stranger can find out all about your family, hopefully another answer presents itself soon.

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Graeme McMillan is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @Graemem or on Facebook at Facebook/Graeme.McMillan. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.